Niyo: Teske takes biggest leap in Michigan's stellar start

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Few coaches can chart Michigan’s recent basketball evolution quite like Purdue’s Matt Painter. His Boilermakers have faced John Beilein’s teams four times in the last 11 months, and nine times over the last 2½ seasons, between regular-season matchups and Big Ten tournament meetings.

So when Big Ten’s second-longest tenured coach talks about the changes he sees, or when he marvels at the transformation playing out in Ann Arbor — where a placard in the Maize Rage student section Saturday afternoon proclaimed “YES, WE’RE A BASKETBALL SCHOOL NOW” — it’s not blind commentary.

“They’ve come so far,” Painter said after Michigan had salted away another lopsided win, 76-57, in the Big Ten opener for both teams. “Not just defensively, but more of a mindset. They can outscore you, but they also can grind it out on you. So that’s an unbelievable 1-2 punch to have as a team, to have both of those qualities.”

And perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in the middle of it all for Michigan, where junior center Jon Teske is emerging as a surprising combo of his own, tying a career high Saturday with 17 points while grabbing eight rebounds as the Wolverines led from start to finish.

Michigan started by raining down 3s, something it hadn’t yet done in racing to what’s now a 8-0 record and a top-five ranking in the national coaches’ poll. But after making nine 3-pointers in the first half — effectively beating the Boilermakers at their own game — the Wolverines relied largely on that stifling team defense the rest of the way. To wit: Michigan made just two field goals in the final 14 minutes of Saturday’s contest and still walked away with a comfortable win.

A 3 to believe

One of those buckets down the stretch was from Jordan Poole, who led all scorers with 21 points, including a 5-for-5 day from beyond the arc. The other came Teske, though, and if there was a pivotal moment in this game, other than the opening tip, that was probably it.

After Purdue cut the lead to 12, Teske drew a foul and made both free throws to make it 64-50. (He finished 5-for-6 from the line Saturday after going 0-for-3 against North Carolina.) Then on the next possession, point guard Zavier Simpson dribbled off a high ball screen and Teske flashed out to the top of the key, took a pass back from Simpson and calmly stroked a deep pick-and-pop 3 that rattled home — his second of the game — and ignited the Crisler Center crowd.

“The two threes is a huge step for him,” said Beilein, who’d continued to encourage Teske to take the open 3s despite making just one of his first 10 attempts this season. “That’s a confidence thing that will empower him going forward.”

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Yet like so many of the Wolverines, that confidence starts in the weight room, where offseason work with longtime UM strength and conditioning coach Jon Sanderson builds more than muscle. It builds a foundation that allows Beilein to work his coaching magic, because it’s easier to move the chess pieces around the board when those pieces learn to move themselves.

As Beilelin put it Saturday, “There’s a lot of Camp Sanderson stuff going on out there on the court.”

We’ve seen it with countless players in this program over the years, including several now in the NBA. But we’re seeing it now in particular with Teske, the 7-foot-1, 255-pounder who spent the entire spring and summer in Ann Arbor — along with Poole, Isiah Livers and Austin Davis — knowing there was an opportunity to play starter’s minutes this season. With Moritz Wagner opting to enter the draft last spring, the Wolverines were counting on a player affectionally nicknamed “Big Sleep” to take a big step.

But this big?

“Well, Jon Teske has come a long way,” Painter said. “He has bypassed a lot of people, in my opinion, that he competes against. … He has really worked. I don’t know him personally, but there’s no way he hasn’t worked hard. Because he was a long way away two years ago.”

Even last season, Teske averaged only 12 minutes a game off the bench. But he played 15½ minutes in the first half alone Saturday and he finished with nearly 31 minutes on the court, less than 72 hours after he’d logged a career-high 34 minutes in the win over North Carolina.

Pulling his weight

Asked afterward if he could’ve done that a year or two ago, he laughed.

“No, probably not,” he said. “Maybe with a lot of breaks. … I give a lot of credit to Sandman. I’ve been here all summer the past two years, working on my body. And I feel good out there.”

Beilein does, too, obviously.

“Says a lot about who he is,” he said of Teske's offseason commitment. “And it’s just starting to pay off.”

At both ends of the court, as Teske anchors the Wolverines’ half-court defense — five blocked shots against North Carolina is but one example — while adding another element at the other end, slipping screens and clearing lanes with impressive footwork. Michigan’s mid-afternoon blitz of the Boilermakers included a couple alley-oop dunks by Teske — one of them a monster slam over Purdue’s Ryan Cline off a lob from Charles Matthews that brought the house down and forced Painter to call a timeout.

“He’s got a bright future,” Painter said. “He has really, really helped them. Not just defensively, but also offensively, because he can knock down that 17-footer, he can play at the rim, and it gives them a different look. Allows them to play big, allows them to play small when they get different matchups, especially in the tournament.”

Tournament time is a long way off, obviously. So is Michigan’s first loss, by the looks of it. The Wolverines have won every game on their schedule by at least 17 points so far.

But when you see the large-scale improvements from a player like Teske, it’s hard not to consider the possibilities.

“As he continues this growth, who knows what can happen for him?” Beilein said.

The same can be said for this Michigan team, it seems.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo